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A skein of viewpoints and styles. Unreliable narrators. An unsolvedindeed, unsolvablemurder. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is most often cited as the film that put Japanese cinema on the map when it won the Grand Prize at the 1951 Venice Film festival and a Best Foreign Film Oscar. But it was also a crucial influence on the French new novelists and new-wave directors (especially Alain Resnais), inspiring a mode of film noir mystification that continues in recent movies like The Usual Suspects.
Indeed, it’s probably the subsequent popularity of Kurosawa’s gambit that has somewhat undermined Rashomon’s reputation. Today, the device is unsurprising, and the movie doesn’t look like one of the director’s best. Still, it’s powerful filmmaking, and Toshiro Mifune’s remarkable performance is just one of its considerable assets. In tribute to the recently deceased actor, the film is being shown this week at the American Film Institute Theater in the first new 35mm print struck in decades.
Rashomon is named for the dilapidated gate outside 12th-century Kyoto where several travelers take refuge from a pelting rain. The indirect title is in keeping with the oblique narrative, for the gate is not the site of the central action. Instead, it’s where three men seek to make sense of the conflicting stories told by the drama’s central characters: a bandit (Mifune), a samurai (Masayuki Mori), and the latter’s wife (Machiko Kyo). It turns out that one of the men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), has his own version of the incident.
The accepted facts are that the bandit attacked the couple and raped the woman, and that the samurai is dead. But there are three different accounts of how he died, each offered by one of the participants. (The slain man’s testimony is eerily presented by a medium.) Eventually, the woodcutter reveals himself as a witness to the incident, delivering another variation on the tale. Since he’s a disinterested bystander, and his story is the least noble, his should be the most reliable report. Yet Kurosawa offers a hint that the woodcutter is also not telling the whole truth. (“I don’t mind a lieif it’s interesting,” allows one character.)
The film’s scenario seems lucid enough these days, but its ambiguity and lack of heroism must have been shocking to early-’50s audiences. Particularly in Japan, where the samurai spirit had been hailed as an ideal for World War II combatants, it was daring to suggest that sword-wielding men might talk better battles than they fight. Rashomon is a crucial film in the development of a Japanese historical cinema that depicts the time of the samurai as an age of infamy rather than of chivalry.
Kurosawa has said that Rashomon was strongly influenced by silent films, and indeed some of the movie’s most striking moments are free of dialogue. Mifune characterizes the bandit principally with gestures, suggesting kabuki as well as Chaplin; during the woman’s account of the episode, he becomes almost simian. (The least effective thing about this chapter is the score, which here emulates Ravel’s Bolero.) The film’s most evocative sequence comes when the woodcutter presses his way deeper into the forest, about to discover the evidence of the crime. Remarkably abstract by the businesslike standards of ’50s cinema, the scene suggests a passage from civilization into the wilderness, where anything is possible (and the truth may never be known).
Rashomon’s mix of styles was also trailblazing. Kazuo Miyagawa’s camera work ranges from subjective to detached, from frenzied to formal. Interspersed with the four accounts of the crime and the travelers’ attempts to understand it are scenes from some sort of inquest. The courtroom-drama component of the film, these sequences are shot from the fixed vantage point of an official sitting on a tatami (and thus represent an attempt to impose the logic of old Japan on unruly modernism). This tatami-level-view is, of course, the trademark camera position of Yasujiro Ozu, the director who did the most to honor old Japan’s traditional formality. But it was also used last year in Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book to denote Japanese serenity in contrast to Hong Kong’s frenzy. Rashomon may lack the sweep of Kurosawa’s best-loved work, but it still has lessons to teach contemporary filmmakers.
For Robert Altman, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Downey Jr., and Daryl Hannah, The Gingerbread Man is a chance to do something a little different. For John Grisham, however, this is barely a change of pace.
The Gingerbread Man is ever so slightly different: It’s based on a Grisham story, rather than a novel, and its protagonist is an established lawyer who wanders into ethically dubious territory, rather than the well-meaning fresh-out-of-law-school hero typical of Grisham’s tales. Since it was directed by Altman, the movie is freer and funkier than previous Grisham-derived fare, and cinematographer Changwei Gu (whose credits include such dazzlers as Life on a String and Ju Dou) provides unprecedented visual flair. Still, the film may soon be notable principally for being the first commercial flop to hail from Grishamland. (The studio recut the movie after test-market audiences disdained it, only to release Altman’s original version after subsequent test audiences didn’t like the studio version, either.)
The story opens with the overlapping chatter of TV news and talk radio: Savannah lawyer Rick Magruder (Branagh with a New South drawl) has just won a big case, and his law firm throws him a surprise party. The crowd includes Rick’s loyal associate Lois Harlan (Hannah) and even his bitter ex-wife Leeanne (Bond babe Famke Janssen, no less). After the party, Rick gives a ride home to distraught waitress Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), who tells him she lives in fear of her cult-leader father Dixon (all-purpose Bible Belt freakazoid Robert Duvall). After he sleeps with her, Rick decides to protect Mallory from her dad.
Venturing far from his legal specialities, Rick enlists party-boy private investigator Clyde Pell (Downey) and Mallory’s own bitter ex-spouse (Tom Berenger) to help get Dixon committed to a mental hospital. Then Dixon’s ominously disheveled followers (whose beliefs are never articulated) bust their leader out of the asylum, and soon Rick’s children are being threatened anonymously. Convinced he’s protecting his kids, Rick initiates a showdown with Dixon, with disastrous results. Only then does he begin to suspect that he’s being used.
The Gingerbread Man is Altman’s first Hollywood thriller, but it doesn’t break the mold: The story is contrived, and the audience is likely to be several steps ahead of the allegedly savvy protagonist, from the scene in which Mallory takes him home. (It wouldn’t be a ’90s Altman movie without full-frontal female nudity, but how many harassed, weeping women would matter-of-factly undress in front of a man they just met?) With a hurricane (puckishly named Geraldo) lashing Savannah, most of the action taking place at night, and Gu framing shots through windows and between gravestones, this is Grisham Dark. Still, neither wind, rain, nor dark of night is enough to make something urgent from one of the writer’s glib fables.
Palmetto finds another eminent director, Volker Schlondorff, mucking around in the American South. The German filmmaker, whose résumé includes such compelling work as Circle of Deceit and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, has never made a good movie in English, and this is no exception. E. Max Frye’s screenplay (from a novel by James Hadley Chase) is a regrettable example of the influence of The Usual Suspects: It just keeps piling on the complications until the only possible resolution is a phony one.
The movie’s other obvious precursor is Body Heat, in which a clueless, sweaty guy does the bidding of a ludicrously overseductive babe. This time, the guy is Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson), an unemployed former journalist; the babe (Elisabeth Shue, riffing on her dirty-prep-school-girl role in Leaving Las Vegas) introduces herself as Rhea Malroux. She wants Harry to pose as a kidnapper upon the disappearance of her stepdaughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny), who’s actually part of the scam. When Harry pats down Rhea for a wire, she pants.
Like The Gingerbread Man’s Rick, Harry is supposed to be helpless to resist an attractive, available woman. Considering that he lives with a sexy, affectionate (and impossibly understanding) sculptor played by Gina Gershon, though, Harry shouldn’t be all that vulnerable to Rhea’s allure. And since Harry has just gotten out of jail, where he spent two years after being set up by crooked local politicians and cops, he really should be more skeptical. Besides, the $50,000 Harry’s offered is hardly worth the potential kidnapping rap he’ll get if the scheme goes wrong.
Of course, Harry goes for the planor does he? Since Harry is the film’s protagonist, he must split with Rhea and her collaborators eventually. As the plot spirals out of Harry’s control and becomes far more deadly than Rhea promised, it just becomes a question of when. But the filmmakers aren’t talking: Palmetto is a mystery only because the movie doesn’t tell the viewer what it knows. (OK, there is a small hint.)
The film’s post-production was done at Babelsberg Studio, a historic German facility that Schlondorff has worked to revive, and the editor is Wim Wenders regular Peter Przygodda. Such credits aside, however, this is all familiar Hollywood stuff, from the jokes at Harry’s expense and the human flesh/food shock cut to the brutal denouement and the self-conscious final shot. Just as surely as Altman wasted his time in Georgia, Schlondorff found nothing fresh in Florida.CP